When a four-phase election for municipal bodies in Jammu and Kashmir begins Monday, it will be 13 years since the last time such elections were held.
But unlike 2005, when people turned out in large numbers, few are likely to cast votes this time. “Polls this time are a contrast to 2005. It was a festivity then and this time parties are struggling to get candidates,” says a senior official. “We would be surprised if the voting percentage crosses 10-15 per cent.”
Eleven municipal committees, a municipal council and three wards of Srinagar Municipal Corporation were scheduled to go to polls in the first phase. But, voting would be held only in four committees and a council as in the others, either no candidate is contesting or candidates have won unopposed.
Though 294 candidates are in fray for 74 wards of Srinagar Municipal Corporation, the turnout is likely to be low, especially after the killing of two National Conference workers by suspected militants.
Set up as a municipal committee in 1886 by Dogra ruler Maharaja Pratap Singh, the corporation is one of the oldest municipal bodies in the country. It became a council in 1956 and a corporation in 2003. But in its long history, it has witnessed polls only four times — 1952, 1972, 1977 and 2005. In 15 years as a corporation, it has been run by Mayors for five years — 2005 to 2010. The rest of the time, it has been run by a Municipal Commissioner, a government officer.
“Legislators have always tried to put off local body polls,” says Salman Sagar of NC, a two-term Mayor. “They want all power in their hands. Omar sahib wanted decentralisation of powers. But our party legislators and that of the coalition partner (Congress) didn’t let that happen,” he adds.
Since 2010, when the corporation last had a mayor, Srinagar has grown rapidly and has also witnessed the 2014 floods. Some say that due to absence of an elected municipal body, issues such as waste management, health, food safety, drainage and repair of roads have not been properly addressed.
“Srinagar is like a big garbage dump,” says activist Raja Muzaffar Bhat. “The only landfill site is filled up to 95 per cent and there is no alternate site.” Work on a ‘waste to energy’ plant, for which National Green Tribunal set a deadline of June 2019, is yet to begin. “Despite another extension, the work has not started,” said an official of the corporation.
The corporation has less than 300 garbage collecting vehicles for a population of 1.4 million. In the absence of a municipal body, the corporation has failed to augment its infrastructure or manpower.
In 2014, when floods hit Srinagar, the state administration scrambled to get the city back on its feet. While J&K government worked overtime, a bulk of funds from 14th Financial Commission were lost due to absence of an elected municipal corporation.
J&K has two Municipal Corporations, Srinagar and Jammu, six municipal councils and 70 municipal committees. The councils and committees have also been without elected heads since 2010.
“Everyone was against us,” says a former president of a council. “The militants saw us as an extension of the state and legislators saw us as someone they have to share power with.” Legislators acknowledge this, but say local bodies “is a failed experiment” in J&K and adds a “layer of corruption”.
Sagar disagrees. “These are important institutions that benefit people. A councillor is accessible to a citizen in his Mohalla.”